Wallner Gallery Lakeside Arts University of Nottingham
East Midlands

Simon Withers has been going down the River Trent on a daily basis since 2019. He has taken thousands of intimate pictures and compositions of Swans. He could easily pitch up, grab a photo then clear off, but that would leave him in the camp of the looker or the voyeur. Importantly  he sits with them, feeds them, communes and at times rescues them. When he sits he is not waiting, rather he is being. It is for me that slippage into an ontological state that gives rise to these images being so wonderful.  Periodically I pass him in my rowing boat and bear witness to this. And each time I feel all the better for it.

To quote his recent exhibition statement his work process testifies to ‘a person trying to understand what it is to be human and what it is to be swan…’ I’ve always been drawn to a key function of art being elucidatory, not in terms of empirical knowing per se, but empirical unknowing. You might call this wonder. This world of wonder, is in part underpinned by the desire to know, whilst inwardly recognising the impossibility of this quest in its broader scope, This is curiously what drives us forward as artists. You could call it the thrill of the chase, although in this case it’s more of a symbiotic sensibility with the world.

These images can be celebrated by their exquisite formal composition. The monochrome images utilise a full range of tonal values from the deepest black to the whitest whites. The framing is exquisite and the work shows highly considered structure and contrast with efficacy. There is a strongly abstract language afoot here, parallel to Mapplethorpe’s Lily photographs. Like them, Withers manages to elevate his subject to an altogether higher level. But let’s remember this is not shot in the studio, rather captured in the everyday. This wonder and revelation of the world has been a signature in Wither’s work for many decades. And I am reminded of his abstract multi-fold paintings from the mid 1990s. This understanding of process and abstraction firmly sits beneath everything he does.

Making the everyday extraordinary, or rather showing us the everyday is extraordinary, if we just bother to give it the time of day is arguably the most significant thing an artist can do in a world overloaded with consumer stuff. Wither’s is much more than an image maker, he is an ambassador to the swan community and a reminder to those who watch him, watching them, that there is value in being in the here and now. We are nature and nature is us.  People stop and talk to him and he leads by example. In many ways akin to the seminal actions of Joseph Beuys.  He also has a dry sense of humour and a visit to his Instagram is a must. But if you can get to see these photographs in the flesh, it is well, well worth it.